Sunday, November 26, 2017

Oregon Symphony plays Beethoven and themes inspired by ancient masters

Sunday November 19 saw the Oregon Symphony perform a night of Beethoven music and music inspired by the master, under the direction of guest conductor Johannes Debus, and featuring guest ensemble the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

The Viennese master's Symphony No. 2 in D Major comprised the first half of the concert. Its appropriately stentorian opening was followed by suitable delicacy when called for; the sort of work that is the OSO's bread and butter. In the Larghetto the strings groaned and breathed like a single great mellifluous organ, and later in the fourth movement they managed rapid acrobatics nicely. There were some good sounds here, but the overall interpretation felt a bit restrained, perhaps missing something personal that a straightforward work like this really needs in order to feel fresh.

John Adams enormous Absolute Jest from 2012 began the second half. This work consisted of a series of quotations of Beethoven (mostly the late string quartets) that were reworked (often intensely reworked harmonically) and stretched into an elaborate set of variations. In the form of a concerto for string quartet, the St. Lawrence String Quartet did the heavy lifting here. Following an extensive preview of some themes from the monumental Op 131 quartets, the group challenged the audience to find the 8 other Beethoven themes used throughout the work (Sidenote: I was able to identify a few, but nowhere near all 8. Intense Beethovenians would do much better at it than I.)  In the Presto, the work produced a disquieting sensation when a spritely scherzo by the quartet was played over a see of dissonant, vaguely ominous chordal motives from the orchestra. The piece at times became a confusing welter--alarming warbling exclamations from horns clomping around like the footsteps of some immense monster, blatting and burbling away in brutal syncopation.

The string quartet deserves high praise: this was an incredibly difficult rendering of incredibly difficult underlying music, and their lively, precise and enthusiastic interpretation was quite something. A tricky piece indeed to hold together--such was the character of the piece it felt close to careering off the rails at times but of course never did. Without particularly enjoying the overall effect, I felt profound respect for both Adams, the OSO and the St. Lawrence String Quartet at not shying away from a difficult challenge.

Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of Carl Maria von Weber closed out the evening. The strings had a fascinating, insect-like sul ponticello scritching and the winds managed a difficult fughetta seamlessly. It was difficult to top off an afternoon of fireworks like this with a suitable bang, yet somehow the March at the end of the work achieved it. The concert was a bit of bold programming; it was fascinating to hear modernizations in such drastically different styles by composers of the high classical era.

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